Rivers and Migrants

I was supposed to preach on discipleship, but things changed. Same passage of scripture I’ve been studying all summer – Ezekiel 47. However, after seeing all the images of polluted waters and struggling migrants on the news, well, I couldn’t ignore these pictures and “carry on”.

  • The Environmental Protection Agency in the US accidentally dumped toxic metals into the Animas River in Colorado.
  • The water supply in Lancashire has been found to have a parasite cryptosporidium, with people being encouraged to boil all water used for cooking or drinking first.
  • The media were in a frenzy because Songs of Praise chose to film in a church located in the Calais migrant camp. Meanwhile politicians are describing the actions of people stuck in Calais in ways that dehumanize the people who are fleeing their home countries. (The Joint Public Issues Team and the Anglican Church have both responded to the language used by politicians this week.  Statement can be found here: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/a-statement-on-the-situation-in-calais/)
  • We’ve been shocked with news from Greece, as 2,500 migrants were locked in a stadium for 24 hours.
  • And just Saturday, there were reports by the Italian navy that 40 migrants had died from overcrowded conditions, most likely suffocated to death inside the hull of the boat. I was reminded of the American slave ships of the 1800’s.

What is going on?  It’s been a shocking couple of weeks in many ways.

So as I’m praying about these world events and I’m studying Ezekiel 47, I can’t think of discipleship. I can only think of rivers and refugees.

Ezekiel 47 starts at the Temple, which is the source of the river. This passage was written in Babylon, during the exile, from 593 BCE to 571 BCE. The book Ezekiel is a book of prophecy with a unique view of the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple from a person in exile.

Being an American living abroad, I can relate to this. Over the past year I have heard reports of racism and protests. In my own home town, someone tried to set fire to a church with a predominately African-American congregation. I wanted to visit the church leader, give him my support. Gather with people to pray for this congregation and the surrounding community. To take a stand with them against hatred and racism. But I was over here. It is so hard to hear of horrific events unfolding in your native land and being unable to do anything about it, but pray and wait for more news.

So I can relate to what Ezekiel must have been going through, but unlike Ezekiel, I can go back to the States anytime I want. Ezekiel though could not go back. He was an exile. Ezekiel was a bit like a migrant who was forced to leave his homeland because of war and religious persecution.

The challenge for him and all the other migrants was how can they keep a sense of identity, remember who they are, without all the usual stuff to remind them? How can they still be Jewish without the promised land, without Temple and priests, without Temple sacrifices, or without a Davidic king? Could they still worship God in Babylon? You may remember that the vision Ezekiel has of God way back in chapter 1, is one of God on a throne of wheels. God is on the move! God isn’t stuck in one place, but rather God can be anywhere God wants.

Ezekiel has a vision of the new Temple and of the river in today’s reading flowing from the Temple. This vision shows God moving, re-establishing His Temple and His presence, but also overflowing in to the surrounding lands, bringing life.   Ezekiel is given this amazing promise in verse 9 that “everything will live where the river goes”. This vision is a vision of hope.

And this amazing vision of the river has some key elements to it:

  • In verses 3-6, we see a good example of discipleship. You have two people. One, leading the other. One measuring, the other watching. One guiding the other one deeper and deeper, showing the other all parts of the river. One learning, the other saying, “Mate, are you seeing this? Are you getting it?” There is a sense of journeying together. This isn’t a you-and-God-only journey, this is discipleship. We journey together.
  • Verses 7-12 describe the life in God’s river, the places that it will go and the lives it will touch. Trees will line its banks. Water will become fresh water. Fishermen will love it, as they will catch lots of fish. Everything will thrive.
  • In verse 12, we read the wonderful description, the promise that “On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”

Crucially this promise in Ezekiel 47:12 is repeated in Revelation 22:2, as the river flowing from the throne of God is described.

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 22:1-5, NRSV)

Revelation was written also for persecuted God followers. Written after the Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed again – this time by the Romans- the God followers were again without a spiritual home. By this time, many Gentiles had become Christians, enough to make the Romans nervous (at least enough to start blaming the Christians when things were going wrong for Rome).

“Those Christians are angering our gods! They are the reason our economy is looking bleak. They are the reason our crops are failing. They are the reason we haven’t had the usual successes in battle.”  Jews and Christians took the blame from some Roman emperors for a lot of stuff. (Much like migrants do today maybe??)

Some of the early Christians listening to Revelation may have been migrants, we don’t know. At the time Revelation was written, Christians were being persecuted. (The book was written in code that the persecuted Christians would have understood, but hopefully their oppressors would not.) For someone to have written a book detailing hope in their desperate situation in a code that scholars today still struggle to crack makes perfect sense.

This image of the river of God – whether flowing from the Temple as in Ezekiel or from the throne of God and the Lamb as in Revelation – is an image meant to bring the persecuted follower of God…hope. A sense that life is difficult now, but things will get better. God has not forgotten you and is working behind the scenes. You don’t need a Temple per se, God can still reach you.

And God promises – fruit for food and leaves for healing.

Both scriptures are awesome images of rivers as a source of life and vitality, beauty and strength for all of nature – plants, animals, and people. They are beautiful images of what could be, but the sad reality is – we people do not take care of our rivers.

It’s God’s river. Let’s be clear. All these promises and dreams come from being in relationship with God. The Temple was a place of relationship, where God and humans met. Jesus, the lamb, provided a means of relationship for us.

It’s God’s river, but God partners with us, gives us the job of looking after the river. The actions we take have consequences. Sometimes unforeseen circumstances, as shown this past week with the Animas River in America. Rivers are significant parts of our environment. They carry life. We benefit greatly from rivers. With our rivers in such a state, I read these passages, and lament the loss of our rivers, of what could be.

However – both passages are also about migrants. About the persecuted. And each passage dares to offer believers in such desperate circumstances… hope. Hope that a nation, a church would be restored, yes, but more than that, hope that God would once again live with His people. Hope for the exiled, the migrants, the persecuted followers of God.

I don’t have any answers for the migrants in Calais or around the world. Just hope. Hope that I can’t shake. Is hope enough? Will hope motivate us to dream, to envision that things could be different than they are? Is hope enough to give us the courage to look beyond the labels of “marauding” and “swarm” and to see the people dying in their efforts to try to live? Is hope enough to motivate us to listen to facts rather than the daily media political soundbite?

Will things change if we do – if we hope?

“and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations”

“everything will live where the river goes”

It’s God’s river. The river in Revelation flows from the throne of God and of the lamb. In John 4, Jesus promises streams of living water. It’s God’s river.

Dare we dream this river could be real?


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